October 13, 2004
What exactly happened to the link-and-node hypertext novel? We don’t have to carry out that much of an investigation to see what’s going on with Flash poetry, or the network novel, or interactive fiction. But what’s up with the venerable form used by the soi-disant wunderkinder authors of The Unknown, the one in which Victory Garden took root, in which Shelley Jackson stitched together her Patchwork Girl?
Well, I’ll keep you in suspense no longer: Folks are still writing these sorts of things. Below, I’ll mention a few nice aspects of two recent, lengthy works of hypertext fiction I’ve managed to dip into. I’ll be reading more, when I can afford to, of both Praying to Frank, the first hypertext novel by Damon M. Smith, and a new work by veteran hypertext writer Edward Falco, Circa 1967-1968.
Now, I have only read a bit of these two works so far – less than I’d like, although I certainly don’t labor under the belief that one must read every word of a hypertext in order to be qualified to write about it, any more than I think that a travel writer must visit every street in a city in order to discuss that city, or that a restaurant reviewer must order and consume every dish on the menu. I’ve read enough to know that I’m coming back for more, and will mention here some of what gives me that sense.
Regarding Praying to Frank: You gotta love any piece of electronic literature that makes reference to the Mexican tradition of firing guns into the air in celebration and lamentation. It’s apropos, too, since the central dramatis persona here is “Bulletman (Frank, Bulletboy, Bullet-Man-World): Our mythic center for this tale: small, then immense, then the world.” My sense, from my reading so far, is that Praying to Frank has many of the virtues of an ambitious, fervent first novel. Some of the shortcomings, too, perhaps, but given how rare literary ambition and fervor are, the lack of polish and such don’t bother me so much. There are some nice aspects of having all the text on a single page (Save As… and searches for particular words become easy), but that format didn’t seem ideal to me. The lexias seem quite long, too, possibly exceeding the length of the chapters in Rayuela. As with Cortázar’s novel, the choices at the end of each chapter are usually to continue or to go to one other spot, which could work, although there are a plenty of opportunities for other links. Whatever the structural issues, the writing drives in surprising ways to investigate characters and follow themes. Readings can move from a fervent slice-of-life narration through strange transformations, through issues of race and American identity to matters both more personal and more cosmological, shifting greatly and impressively in style. I was reminded a bit of Lance Olsen’s writing when reading Praying to Frank, and I suppose that wasn’t an outrageous association, since Smith was Olsen’s student. I found this out in Smith’s essay “Hypertext Media as a Vehicle for the Rebirth of American Myth,” by the way, which outlines the advantages of the form and discusses its genre-defying, myth-making potential. Smith, who got his MFA from the University of Miami, is finishing a second hypertext novel, The Anatomy of Angels.
Ed Falco’s Circa 1967-1968 is written in English, set in the United States, and fashioned in the hypertext form, but it seems like it couldn’t be more different in every other possible way. The lexias all just fit on the screen (my screen, anyway) and are presented in a polished way, although the right-hand-side paragraphs in the “pages” directory seem to be snipped in half. The black and white illustrations, which look like Photoshop filter examples, aren’t to my taste, but they didn’t detract from the prose and they are integral to the fiction and discussed within it. The text relates sophomoric utterances, discussions of Euripides, and conservatively-styled narratives in first and third person, set in or recalling the late 1960s: “We build roads between points and they’re always two-way, taking us back and forth, back and forth.” The prose style neither excited nor disappointed me – the only lexia I had a negative reaction to was the author’s note telling me how to look at the illustrations: “The fact that those are real people under the distortions of photography should be irrelevant to the reader.” (Was this bit of apparatus included to distance me further from the piece?) Falco’s episodes are perfectly crafted, written to be lexias of just that size, complete and fitting well into their slot on the screen. They are in the classic old-school hypertext style. And they do work well – but they also lack the overflowing quality (not to mention to genre-shifting nature) of the less well-regulated Praying to Frank, leaving me wondering about whether there is a happy medium here or whether the two extremes are actually what are interesting. The links, both from bits of images and from whole lexia, also seem right and work well to invite exploration. Circa 1967-1968 isn’t a hypertext that lays on the surprises, but it explores approximate memories using the juxtaposition of text and image and plays on its hypertext structure quite interestingly. Falco also wrote “Sea Island” and A Dream with Demons, both published on disc by Eastgate. Eastgate published Circa (and Falco’s Charmin’ Cleary) online in their reading room.
If classical demon-writer Falco and experimental angel-writer Smith are both working at lexia-and-link fiction, I suppose the form is still around. Both of these works were completed in 2003; I believe Circa was published in March and Praying to Frank late last year. My own reading of hypertext novels is going to have to take a back seat for a while to the writing I need to do, the coding I need to do, and the playing of IF Competition games that I’d better make time to do, but please drop me a comment here if you know of other recent work worth reading. I’ll add a bookmark.